On Thursday, November 17th, while sitting with friends and colleagues in the packed to capacity Baltimore convention center hall, someone entering the row behind asked, “Has NWSA always been this Black?” as they sat down. Without coordination, a chorus of us within earshot of this query responded with a most resounding, “NO!” I didn’t even turn around. We were having a gabfest awaiting the start of the keynote, a conversation between activist, writer and Distinguished Professor of History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies at UC Santa Cruz, Angela Davis, and Alicia Garza a co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter that was moderated by Spelman professor of Women’s Studies Beverly Guy-Sheftall, a former president of the National Women’s Studies Association.
The ballrooms, at capacity, held over 1500 hundred seats and contained an audience of various races, genders, abilities, and generations. As a semi-regular participant in this annual meeting, (the Haitian Studies Association, one of my professional staples, usually occurs on the same dates) you could not have paid me to be anywhere else. Throughout the three days I attended, I was immersed in critically engaging and constructive dialogues having participated in a round table celebrating stalwart feminist historian Paula Giddings’ retirement in an affirming space best summed up by the buzz that this particular conference was “Blackity Black,” or “Blackity Black-black,” as another colleague stressed, emphasizing its realness.
With more than 2500 registrants, this conference was the second largest gathering since San Juan, Puerto Rico in 2014. It was also one of the most visibly diverse. The exchange from the telling allusion above is the reason that on Awards Night, activist anthropologist, Black feminist and award winning author, Dr. Irma McClaurin received a special award in recognition of pivotal work that led to this tremendous shift.
Executive Director, Allison Kimmich who worked closely with McClaurin had this to say, “Irma set the stage for NWSA's transformation with her grant-making while she was a program officer at the Ford Foundation. She invested in NWSA at a time when many people had given up on the organization. We shared a vision for the vital, field leading, women of color-centered organization that NWSA could become, and I'm thrilled that the vision has become a reality.” Indeed, in the course of a less than a decade, NWSA has radically altered.
The Blackness of it all, or sense of belonging many attendees felt and openly expressed, is especially noteworthy and has been strategically cultivated. To those new to NWSA, The Baltimore Conference, (yes, I believe it deserves a pronoun and to be capitalized), was a temporary Mecca that will undoubtedly be spoken of for generations to come. For those among us with some knowledge of the tumultuous history between white and black feminists especially, it is evident that this association has undergone a “transformation of consciousness” as Janell Hobson and Karen Jolna recently wrote in Ms. Magazine. They recounted critical moments of tensions marked by the late Audre Lorde’s 1981 keynote calling out racism in the association and the walkout by the Women of Color Caucus in 1990. I first attended in 2005 and was dismayed by the dissention between feminist theory and practice.
The association’s current president is Barbara Ransby a Distinguished Professor of African American Studies, Gender and Women’s Studies, and History, at University of Illinois, Chicago, this year’s theme, “40 YEARS AFTER COMBAHEE: Feminist Scholars and Activists Engage the Movement for Black Lives” is a reclamation of Black women’s centrality in feminism, which, as bell hooks has asserted, is for everybody! Ransby served as co-program chair with Premilla Nadasen, Professor of History at Barnard College. Indeed, folks were going to show up to bear witness to, pay respect and hear some real talk from founding members of the Collective with feminists activists and scholars on today’s frontlines. It was an opportunity for continued engagement with this prescient Black feminist statement, still ever so relevant, which Black Youth Project 100‘s Charlene Carruthers refers to as Sacred Text. Folks were going to show up, if their feminism is rooted in praxis.
Those truly familiar with NWSA who have critical understanding of the Herculean work required to achieve institutional transformation were quick to acknowledge the significant role Irma McClaurin played in this process. (Full disclosure, I consulted on this project in its early phase). For Ransby, "Irma is one of those special people who combines vision with practical hands-on interventions in order to make change happen. This was her gift to NWSA. She provided support and vision at a critical moment in our evolution as an organization, and we are deeply indebted to her."
I asked McClaurin, who considers NWSA one of her success stories, to share some of the details of how this makeover came to be. NWSA had come to her with a specific need. After some research, she asked them what would it take for them to become the association they aspired to. She expressed mutual admiration and respect for Kimmich, whom she stresses has the kind of committed leadership necessary to take on the hard work that brought about this change. Together, with her board they made a collective agreement to share in this work. According to McClaurin, “Kimmich had intentionality, determination and will... Allison was absolutely committed that the Woman of Color Leadership Program was going to become a cornerstone of the association.” Indeed, they build leadership from within. The last presidents of the association have all been women of color. There are a number of other ways the association works to be more welcoming, including preferred gender pronoun tags and instructions about how to prepare presentation handouts that would be accessible to attendees with impairments. McClaurin believes these are crucial efforts for the making of a vibrant and integrated community where participants could come to flourish even if their home departments were not as supportive. The success, we are seeing now in NWSA, was only possible because the very top of leadership wanted to move beyond its history of racial tensions. There was a genuine commitment so atypical of historically white institutions that too often pay lip-service to diversity while their infrastructures remain the same.
NWSA remains in McClaurin’s purview. She continues to participate in the conference. When I asked what she thought of the association’s future, after praising them for being on the cutting edge as they continue to build partnerships with other organizations, she remained an optimistic, yet practical visionary, stating that their dependency on grants makes them vulnerable; to assure their work is sustainable in the future, they need to work on building an endowment.
As a Caribbeanist, transnational feminist with interest in the larger African diaspora, I remain hopeful that the association will continue work to better mainstream feminism from the global south. As I connected with old and new colleagues across generations, I have seen evidence of what it means to do “the work.” I left Baltimore with a real sense of renewal, with a moral optimism necessary in these dangerous times, that I will carry with me. Since we were there on the anniversary of her death, I could not help but wonder what Audre Lorde would think of this moment.